Elvis is Dead, but James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Freddie Prinze Aren't
We asked Charles Oakley, Jeffrey Lantos, and David McDonough to catch up with these three definitive show biz survivors and see what they're up to.
She cancelled, then rescheduled the meeting dozens of times. Finally, when she met to talk with Charles Oakley, she showed up nearly four hours late. "We met, at her insistence, at a very off hour, in a dimly-lit corner of Barney's Beanery," Oakley told us. "Later, we drove to Santa Monica to stroll on the pier and watch the sun come up." Was the '50s dream girl, now 65, worth the wait? Oakley says, "She was everything I'd heard - Marilyn almost wept when we couldn't ride the carousel at 3 a.m."
Movieline: You always took stardom in your own hands. Mailing out cheesecake of yourself when Darryl F. Zanuck at Fox didn't see your potential. Posing for that nude calendar. Not complaining when your salary was low, and grabbing Gentlemen Prefer Blondes away from Betty Grable - who wanted ten times more money than you did, and whom Zanuck really saw as "Lorelei Lee."
Marilyn Monroe: Well, like I said about that calendar business, I was hungry! See, I knew what I wanted and put up with a ton of malarky to get it.
Q: Fox shoved you into some barkers - Don't Bother to Knock, River of No Return, There's No Business Like Show Business...
A: Sweetie, you should have seen what I turned down. Ever hear of The Girl in Pink Tights? The Revolt of Mamie Stover? And oh, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing? Ever notice how they always cast big-lipped brunettes like Joan Collins and Elizabeth McGovern to play Evelyn Nesbit? Just asking. Then they handed me a real stinkeroo about a couple of belly-dancers, How to Be Very, Very Popular - and I said, "Mr. Zanuck, honey, excuse my dust, I'm going to New York to study with Lee Strasberg." He blew a gasket.
Q: The Method certainly changed your life.
A: Did you know that Mr. Strasberg only called me one of the two or three most sensitive and talented people he'd ever met? What a doll-baby. Anyway, I wanted to do The Brothers Karamazov, Tender Is the Night, Sanctuary, but, no, Zanuck's bright idea was a remake of The Blue Angel. I wouldn't waste my breath. Sammy's [Davis] old girlfriend, May Britt, did it instead and where did it get her? Now I hear Madonna wants a crack at it, which seems just about her size. Dietrich couldn't sing to save her life either. As I learned first hand when we worked together on Just a Gigolo.
Q: What do you make of the blondes who are compared to you?
A: [laughing] Mincemeat, baby. Sheree, Mamie, Tuesday, Raquel, Diana Dors, Stella Stevens? I've always said only the public makes a star, studios try to make it a system. I've watched the others fade - some of them pretty darn fast, too. I finally rented Tootsie the other night - you know how they made such a to-do about Jessica Lange being "the new Marilyn," blah-blah-blah? Two nights later, I saw her eating salad at the worst table at Hamburger Hamlet. This is a sex goddess? I mean, she was beige: hair, eyes, skin, teeth, dress. I wanted to call an emergency clinic to get her on a 24-hour IV moisturizer drip. And when the producers called me about doing Frances, I thought they meant the lead, not Jessica Lange's mother. I told them: "Dishrags don't have mothers."
Q: Kim Basinger? Melanie Griffith?
A: Get a grip. And then for Arthur to write that Everybody Wins movie...
Q: Arthur Miller, the playwright to whom you were once married?
A: None other. And then to cast Debra Winger as a sort-of-me character? God, what a frump. Look, Zanuck may have been no rocket scientist, but at least he'd have had the sense to keep a girl like that in the story department or the steno pool, not starring in movies.
Q: After becoming so steeped in the Method, you were determined to expand your range.
A: The Misfits didn't turn out to be what we hoped, and... well, I tried to kill myself. My marriage to Arthur was over, and I couldn't seem to pick up the thread somehow. Anyway, when I went back to Fox, they fired me from Something's Got to Give for being late, or whatever. They were going to have Lee Remick replace me, if you can believe that, but we managed to patch it up, and they finally sent her packing - and weren't they glad because, as you know, the picture went through the roof. Suddenly I was the queen of the sex comedies - What a Way to Go! [she draws a blank] - help me out here, sugar, will you?
Q: Do Not Disturb, How to Murder Your Wife, Kiss Me Stupid...
A: Right, and, all of a sudden, there I am, the female Doris Day.
A: [giggling] Now, don't try getting me to say anything I'll regret in the morning, buster. I just meant, Doris with sex organs, that's all. Still, that was a dark period for me, what with Jack's death... [staring off]
Q: The Kennedy assassination...
A: Well, why deny it? I went into a complete tailspin, down and down I went.
Q: With all the TV movies and miniseries made about the Kennedys-
A: Tell me about it. Annette O'Toole as Rose Kennedy, Jaclyn Smith and Blair Brown as Jacqueline Kennedy, the Bay of Pigs this, and Bobby's that. And it's lies, all lies, because not a single, solitary one of them mentions the A-number one woman in Jack and Bobby's life: me. [She sobs, quietly.] Those boys were the loves of my life. And it's time I had my day in court.
Q: How do you mean?
A: Well, those high and mighty 25-year-olds who run the networks keep putting it on the back burner, but I'm developing and writing my own TV project that will tell the whole truth and nothing but. But that's all I can say about it now. Looking back, when I lost Jack and then Bobby, I shouldn't have left the country. I should have kept working in Hollywood.
Q: But you did come back, and finally decided to make good on your threats to do classics, take risks.
A: I paid a pretty penny to buy, with the Strasbergs, the rights to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? from Edward Albee. I felt that I had earned it. Oh, I studied, honed my instrument. It was going to be such an artistic triumph. Everyone in this town wanted a piece of the pie. Olivier called up, Henry Fonda offered to audition for it. Who knew? Personally, I thought that Lee and I worked as a New England couple - he was brilliant - and Paula's direction was perfection. [Long silence] I think that "the Hollywood community" - although if there's a community out here, show me where - saw the movie as a giant putdown by us, the New York theater snobs. My world crashed when I didn't win the Oscar. I went down the rabbit hole: pills, booze, blues so bad I couldn't get out of bed, letting my roots go black, game shows, becoming a regular on "Merv Griffin."
Q: You passed up a lot of choice roles: Sweet Charity, Isadora...
A: I'm sorry now that I turned down playing "Mrs. Robinson" in The Graduate. I was supposed to do it with Charles Grodin. When he found out that I had dropped out, he lost interest in acting and went into accounting.
Q: What made you finally decide to return to work in The Poseidon Adventure?
A: [laughing] I'd always wanted to work with Carol Lynley. Seriously, my old friend Shelley Winters dropped out - she told me she just couldn't gain as much weight as the producers wanted her to - and, hell, I'd never played anybody really ethnic before. I thought that might be a kick. I mean, there was Sugar in that movie-
Q: "Sugar Kane" in Some Like It Hot?
A: Um-hmmm, she was supposed to have changed her name from "Kovalchik," and she was Polish, but we didn't dwell, you know? Anyway, they wouldn't let me see dailies during Poseidon Adventure, and finally when I took a gander at myself at the preview, swimming around like Shamu, I said to myself: "Girl, move over and let somebody else get it." Then, when Bogdanovich cut my best stuff out of The Last Picture Show to make his little blonde twit look better, I pretty much checked out.
Q: But you got offers?
A: Of sorts, honey. Maybe I shouldn't have turned down Ordinary People and Terms of Endearment but, by then, I was doing real work - rescuing souls and turning lives around - at my clinic in Rancho Mirage. [giggling] Doris saves dogs, I save junkies.
Q: The Marilyn Monroe Center for Addictions has seen plenty of famous faces.
A: Sure, everyone from Liz and Liza to Betty Ford and Corey what's-his-name. Anyway, yes, I got offers. Plenty. But I couldn't feature myself on "Dynasty," and there was no way I was going to play a cameo for Bogdanovich in his remake of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I've never told anyone this, but, okay, maybe I shouldn't have done "The Jayne Mansfield Story." I thought I could say something with it, but it should have been a feature, not a TV movie. To tell the truth, the failure of that hurt my TVQ, and so I got passed over for Ann-Margret when I wanted to do "A Streetcar Named Desire" but, you know, she's got a higher TVQ. Recently, Liz and I were tempted to take a whack at the new version of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?...
Q: So, what happened?
A: Okay, I'll level with you. It's not because we couldn't agree on billing, though we couldn't, but that wasn't the biggest stumbling block. We both wanted to play Baby Jane. Too bad, because if you ask me, Liz is Blanche Hudson. It's a crying shame, really, because I thought I'd made an interesting choice in how I wanted to sing Baby Jane's big number, "I've Written a Letter to Daddy." I auditioned wearing the dress from Bus Stop - remember the one with all the cherries on it when I sang, "That Old Black Magic"? Of course, it's a little moth-eaten now, but I thought, somehow, that was right for Baby Jane. Besides, I wanted to show people I could still squeeze into it. I have the audition on tape, maybe I'll show it to you sometime. I mean, Emmy time, baby.
Q: You certainly are back in shape these days.
A: Thanks ever so. I've stayed that way since I toured Vegas, Tahoe, Atlantic City. Everywhere I went, the papers said I was slimmer, sang better, and made a bigger comeback than Elvis. And, I might add, it took me a hell of a lot less Maybelline to do it.
Q: So, you're not exactly out of the business?
A: Perish the thought, angel. Like the song says, "I'm still here." I just did the final episode of "Murder, She Wrote"; I'm the drunk driver who flattens Jessica on her bike. Oops, I wasn't supposed to say that. Well, please don't tell anyone. And don't forget my video, the title for which I came up with myself, "Nothing's Got to Give - Aerobics for Foxy Seniors." It sold like hotcakes, so we're doing a sequel, "Gentlemen Prefer Foxes."
Q: Any movie offers?
A: When Mike Nichols asked me to play Meryl Streep's mother, for pity's sake, in Postcards From the Edge, I told him, "Doll, bone up on your old Photoplay magazines. I'm one of the smart ones who didn't marry Eddie Fisher."
Q: Anything else on the horizon?
A: Well, I just did a career interview with that guy on American Movie Classics, but I turned down the TV pilot for Steel Magnolias. I told them, I don't take Shirley MacLaine's roles, she takes my cast-offs. And what else? David Lynch keeps calling about "Twin Peaks," but I mean, if it ever gets good ratings, I'll think about it. Oh, and I said absolutely no, never, ever to playing Julia Roberts's madam in Pretty Woman II. But now, sugar, I'm going nighty-night. Alone. And, yes, I still only wear Chanel No. 5. ■
Charles Oakley wrote about Connie Stevens for our October issue.